On the one-year anniversary of his appointment as head of tech ops at one of the Federal government’s most visible agencies, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Chief Information Officer (CIO) Yemi Oshinnaiye sat down with MeriTalk for a debrief of the past year – and some pointers about where his agency’s technology is heading next.

Yemi Oshinnaiye, Transportation Security Administration

Oshinnaiye talked about several of the new projects he is spearheading at the critical infrastructure agency – like putting new screening equipment at airports, and helping his TSA employees go mobile.

The CIO was appointed to his current post in April 2022. Before that move, he served for three years as deputy CIO at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – like TSA, a separate component agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

In the following interview – edited for length – Oshinnaiye explains what the past year as TSA’s CIO has looked like, and some technology projects his team is currently working on that he’s excited about.

MeriTalk: We were hoping that you could tell us a little bit about some of the technology projects that you’re currently working on at TSA that you’re excited about?

Oshinnaiye: The one I’m most excited about is the open architecture project.

If you’re walking through an airport, and you put your bags to the scanner, that’s one of our pieces of screening equipment. Right now, all the algorithms and everything that comes with that is in that machine, and it’s typically built by one company.

What we’re trying to do is say, let’s open it up – let’s have a company work on algorithms so they can work faster, stronger, and we have better detection on prohibited items, any weapons that might be there. And let’s have another company work on the machine part of it. Then you can have less things to work on, you have more intense research on it, you’ll have better products coming together, and then they’re integrated.

So open architecture is going to allow us to do a lot of really cool things – keep us safe. And that’s just one of the coolest projects we have right now.

The other thing we’re doing is we’re working mobile. We’re trying to get a lot more mobile utilities on our government phones so that the TSOs [transportation security officers] and our staff can work wherever they are. We also have inspectors and compliance folks that go out on site, so how do we enable them to do their jobs easier and faster.

We’re looking at how we take mobile technologies a little bit farther than what they are now. I get excited about that.

MeriTalk: That’s super cool, very exciting. The last time I heard you speak, you said that you were creating a CTO [chief technology officer] and a CDO [chief data officer] post for TSA. Can you tell us a little bit about what that process has been like, and if there are any updates?

Oshinnaiye: The catalyst for that is seeing how much data we use. Once you think about it, as you go through the airports, as we try to look at what wait times are, as you try to look at how safe it is … we have all this data to help us do things better. What do we do with that data? How do we identify it? How do we tag it? How do we make sure the right people are using it?

You need someone that looks at that and helps us use that data for performance, and for being better. That’s where that CDO comes in.

At the same time, TSA has tons and tons of technology. So what I thought is put those two responsibilities together in one position, and you’ll have a person that’s over data and technology, because data and technology intertwine. And then that person can help guide us into the future and fit into that kind of master plan and technology strategy that we have.

I did some research, and I saw six places where there was a CDO-CTO combination, I’ve got a lot of feedback that said, hey, that’s actually a good idea. And so I’m taking more and more feedback, and as I get that we’ll solidify whether it’ll be one position or not.

What we’d like to do first is look at the industry, look at government, and see what kind of attributes you want of that person. So we’re building that profile now. It’s going well. We’re looking at it to come out hopefully before the end of the fiscal year, but we want to take the time to build the right position – get all the right responsibilities, putting the right place in the org chart, and then we’ll post it out there.

MeriTalk: One year ago this week, you were appointed as TSA CIO – congratulations on that. Can you take a look back on the past year and tell us what it’s looked like in the CIO chair, and what is maybe one lesson or key takeaway that you’ve learned during this past year?

Oshinnaiye: It’s gone really fast. I felt like I just got here. I will tell you, it’s been very, very busy.

I took the time to go to a number of airports, and I can tell you, I learned a number of things. One of the things that I’ve really learned is about the dedication, and the hard-working effort that a lot of the TSOs have put in. The other thing is how dynamic they are. I was surprised that some of the TSOs have an IT background, and they know technology. So it’s one of the things to know that we have a staff that’s out there on the frontline that’s very knowledgeable, and we have the ability to harness that knowledge.

One way they’re able to do that is through LIFT cells – which are innovation cells at each airport that allow TSOs to give feedback, to give ideas. We’re working with chief innovation officers to see how we can enable those ideas. And so that, to me, has been a huge takeaway, something that TSA is really leaning forward on, that I’m very excited about.

A lot of times when you get teams together, you get passionate people together, providing that direction allows us to do really, really good things. Our mobile IDs are coming from the frontlines and from our staff utilizing LIFT cells, because they’re seeing the problems and they’re having the answers, and we’re just saying how can we enable it with cool technology, and then reaching out with partners that make products and to help us figure out how to do this. So we’re kind of leaning into product owners and saying, we’ve never seen this done, can you help us do that? And I’ve been really, really pleasantly surprised about how willing folks are to come to TSA and help us get there.

MeriTalk: So during your entire stint in Federal IT, what is one product or accomplishment – and not just at TSA, but anywhere – that you are really proud of?

Oshinnaiye: I will say really a big, big one is us looking at how we deliver software products, and really taking that bold leap and saying let’s do things differently with agile DevSecOps. And not just the buzzwords because everyone says agile DevSecOps.

[We’re going to] take the user and sit with the user and figure out how to do it right. If the user says this isn’t right, then let’s figure out how to change it and not worry about all the long list of policies – we’ll fix that as we go. But we want to know what the right answer to the problem is.

And what that did is it gave us a community where we looked at business value first. And we looked at the high demand for business, and we took IT and we said, how can IT be faster and leaner and keep up with it. And that’s where DevSecOps came from. That’s where automation came up, because we’re trying to keep up with the mission. That is something I’m totally proud of. Because when I first started, we couldn’t get things out to the user in less than a year, then it was six months, then it was three months.

We can get them out now in two weeks – that’s amazing. So you have a crisis, you need something to change, and we can do it in two weeks, because not only do we have that culture, but we built things that we can reuse … and I think that’s a really great thing that I’ve seen over my career.

MeriTalk: We were hoping you could tell us a little bit about your technology path that has taken to where you are now, and if tech has always been a natural interest or more of an acquired one?

Oshinnaiye: As a kid I was a sports fanatic. I played football, basketball, my dad is from Nigeria, so I love soccer. And I thought I was going to be an anchor on Sports Illustrated. So I don’t know if that’s going to happen ever, but that’s what I thought I was going to do. So my first couple jobs out of college – one was an internship with Sports Illustrated, and one was doing a database for a sports health company, they did benefits for the NFL. From that, I learned in college, and I learned to really love technology.

With technology, you try something, you break it, you fix it, and over and over again. I just fell in love with it. As I came from those last few jobs, and I got my first tech job, I said this is really cool. And then I got to work for the government, and I got to work for immigration, I said, well having parents that are immigrants, that’s really cool. And then that started off my curiosity.

I wanted to do everything in technology, and so folks said you can only do one thing, and I said, well, not so. And so I went ahead and I coded, I did databases, I did [quality assurance], I did a little security, I did infrastructure, and I just fell in love because it helps you solve problems. And so I kind of went from being a developer, to being a manager, and then from being a manager to being a leader, and then I got into the government.

It’s really because I’ve wanted to do something to help move and solve a problem and use technology to solve that problem.

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.